Thursday, April 26, 2012

The delicate balance of our ecological systems

When I was in school, we were taught that the cause of malnutrition in our communities was the lack of sufficient protein in the diet. Today, I am much older, and have observed that there is a malnutrition epidemic in the Lake Victoria region in Kenya where fish, a rich source of protein, is supposed to be a staple. At first, I thought this was a uniquely Kenyan problem. Then I saw Hubert Sauper's documentary, Darwin's Nightmare. Apparently, a similar problem exists in the Lake Victoria region of Tanzania.

The film demonstrates how commercial fish harvesting over the years has exhausted the fishing stock in Lake Victoria, creating an ecological crisis. The Nile Perch fillets harvested from the Lake are processed then transported by commercial aircraft to Europe. The same aircraft rarely arrive in Tanzania empty. In fact, they usually bear arms that are then off-loaded under the cover of darkness. So we have a situation whereby Europe is enjoying fish fillets from Lake Victoria while the locals feed on the remains of the processed fish: skeletons from which the fish fillets have been removed. In the meantime, other locals are killed by the buyers of the illicit firearms when violence erupts in the region.

After watching Sawyer's documentary, I looked into the history of the ecological crisis in the lake region. According to available information the Nile Perch are an alien species of fish, which was introduced into the lake in the 1960s, just before Kenya became independent. Over the years, this alien species had decimated local fish stocks by predating on indigenous fish species. Thus, an ecological imbalance has resulted in the lake.

The locals used to subsist on the lake's indigenous food species. However, these have been depleted by the Nile Perch. In the meantime, the most substantial protein source in their diet is the waste from the Nile Perch processing factory:  Nile Perch remains. Thus, they live on a diet deficient in the nutrients that they need. The people in the region have no means to secure separate sources of vitamin A and omega 3 fatty acids. They  do not thrive. Hence poverty, malnutrition and disease are common in the region. As if this is not enough, Lake Victoria is considered to be one of the large fresh water lakes whose future survival is threatened.

For long, residents of the Lake Victoria region have complained about the exhausted fish stock in the lake. There has been little if any response from the sitting governments. A few years ago, I remember reading newspaper reports that indicated that Monsanto was already in the region, and that the introduction of other genetically modified species in the region was a possibility. In some areas, the locals were uprooted from their ancestral land to facilitate these 'innovative projects'. Their only compensation was a promise of maize supplies to subsist on every harvest season.  Maize based diets are apparently at the root of chronic malnutrition in the region. So that news did not bode well for Lake Victoria region's people, whose nutritional status is already declining .

When I read reports of this kind about environmental degradation and the development of supposedly superior species for human consumption anywhere in the world, I often wonder how local leadership fits into the picture. How do governments decide that the efforts of scientists and multinational corporations are for the good of their people? Is there a rigorous effort to look into the pros and cons of the proposed projects? Does money change hands? Are the locals informed about the details of the deals? How about the rights of other nations? In the case of Lake Victoria, which is a resource shared by 3 countries, how do the decisions made by one nation impact the other 2? Most importantly, what is the long-term impact of foreign species and GMOs (genetically modified organisms) on the environment and on the people?

Concerned people need to start taking these questions more seriously and thinking about the legacy are we leaving our children.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The diasporan cash cow

Kenyans living abroad who keep abreast of the daily papers back home are accustomed to seeing articles that portray them as hedonists, living amoral, aimless lives in the land of plenty. Without fail, those articles adopt a scandalized tone and imply that the 'traditional' values of purity and innocence have been replaced with materialism and a dog-eat-dog ethos. Many have learnt to smile and shake their heads as they read those articles, for they know that they hardly scratch the surface of the diasporan experience.

Life abroad is characterized by challenges that are often impossible to relate to the people back home. In addition to these challenges, some have the unenviable burden of supporting entire extended families on their meager wages, often having to work at two or three jobs to send back enough money for school fees, medical care, construction expenses, etc.

Unfortunately, the frequent reward for taking on those responsibilities is that one ends up perpetuating a vicious cycle of dependence. Sometimes that's just the way it is: there is real need in the extended family and the daughter/ son/ nephew/ niece/ grandchild/ cousin/ brother/ sister living abroad is the only one who can help. Other times, there are other options, but because dependence has come to be the easiest of them all, these other options are not explored.

Whatever the situation back home, the Kenyan living in the diaspora continues to send money home whenever the request is made, even if he or she cannot afford to, because he or she is encumbered with guilt of one form or another: guilt that the amount sent last time wasn't enough, guilt that he or she didn't make it home for the last funeral, guilt that he or she hasn't lived up to the family's expectations. The list goes on and on.

Now, the thing about the Kenyan family set up is this: stereotypically, the interests of the extended family (as they are defined by some authority figure) supercede those of the individual. This is a completely different scenario from the American stereotype in which individualism is idealized and the individual's rights are often elevated above those of the larger community. This explains why a significant number of Kenyans living in the diaspora end up struggling to make it through each day in the so-called land of plenty while those whom they are supporting back home live enjoyable lives.

The diasporan Kenyan might be working three jobs, subsisting on four or five hours of sleep daily (because there isn't time to sleep), eating a meager diet (because there isn't time to cook or buying decent food would be 'wasteful') and spending little time with his or her kids (because there's no time for the kids). In the meantime, those back home are receiving support from their relatives abroad, so they manage just fine. They are in their own country, so they don't have to worry about the immigration rigmarole, and whenever there's a crisis, they can always really on Musa/ Tabitha/ Mwangi/ Akinyi in America/ Sweden/ Australia/ the UK to save the day. The families back home also have meaningful social lives with family and friends around to give them emotional support. Ultimately, Kenyans living in the diaspora could easily end up living lower quality lives than those whom they are supporting, not just in material terms, but also emotionally.

One Antony Karanja has taken the time to write about this state of affairs in an April 13th, 2012 article in the Daily Nation: "Stories of anguish behind rising diaspora remittances." The article is brutally honest in its assessment of the financial pressures that Kenyans living abroad are subjected to by their relatives, and it focuses specifically on those whose families have been merciless in their exploitation. Here are some excerpts from his article:

Most Kenyans cite “competition” among parents with children abroad as one of the major factors that strain relationships with their parents. Some say their parents always want to match their neighbours step by step, and therefore demand more from their already stretched relatives abroad. They tend to forget that circumstances are not the same for everyone. (. . .)

Many, however, lament that their families at home have a tendency to round off their cash needs to the nearest Sh20,000. Some will also exaggerate the severity of emergencies, hence getting more than necessary. Some abroad have gone home only to realise that what was quoted for them as school fees had been inflated by almost Sh10,000 per sibling. (. . .)

The strengthening of the Kenya shilling against the US dollar has also meant that those in the US who send a set amount periodically have to send more in terms of dollars just to maintain the same amount in shillings. They say that they sometimes have to work two shifts, which means they start off at 7am and leave work at 11pm.
The article also includes detailed anecdotes, presumably narrated to the writer by those whose families have exploited them.

The article is unusually critical of Kenyans at home, and the reason for this soon becomes apparent: the writer of the article is resident in Dallas, Texas. Clearly, this is a case of the Kenyan in the diaspora responding to years of misrepresentation. Articles that critically examine Kenyan norms and mores in this way are rare. They tend to be condemned for 'washing our dirty linen in public.' Perhaps because they are so rare, they tend to stand out when they are written.

A glimpse at the comments that follow the article reveals the degree to which its message resonates with readers. Many of the comments suggest that the exploitation of family members has been so normalized that it is no longer remarkable. To me, the article also reveals something else: the curious fact that those who fall victim to their families play a part in enabling their family members' behavior. The article does not dwell so much on this, but it is in fact a big part of the problem. There is a certain naivety on the part of many victims of exploitation: an assumption that if they look out for their families, their families will automatically look out for them. In an ideal world, this is exactly would happen, but, in reality, not everybody has the desire or the capacity to live by these ideals. This naivety will have to be addressed at length someday because the victims (and enablers) of the exploitation are really the only ones who have the authority to put an end to it.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Rosen's trip-up: when a simple apology will suffice

I can't believe folks are actually trying to defend Hilary Rosen's comment about Ann Romney. This is what Rosen said:

With respect to economic issues, I think, actually that Mitt Romney’s right that ultimately women care more about the economic well-being of their family and the like. But he doesn’t connect on that issue, either. What you have is Mitt Romney running around the country, saying, ‘Well, you know, my wife tells me that what women really care about are economic issues, and when I listen to my wife, that’s what I’m hearing.’ Guess what? His wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She’s never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing, in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school, and why do we worry about their future.

 And this is what Jonathan Capehart and others have to say in response to the criticisms that have been directed at Rosen:

If you bother to read Rosen’s comments you’d see that her point is that wealthy Ann Romney has been blessed to never have to work outside the home to bring the household additional income to help make ends meet. Rosen wasn’t making a commentary on whether stay-at-home mothers had real jobs. Of course, they do. What Rosen highlighted was that Ann Romney has never faced the financial strain of holding things together while her paycheck shrinks or she loses her job or the kids need braces and there’s no money in their meager budget to pay for it. How, then, can Ann Romney advise her out-of-touch husband on the specific problems American women face?
I think Rosen, Capehart and others are missing the point about what Mitt Romney said. Mitt Romney did not say that Ann was giving him her opinion as a career woman. Nor did he say that Ann was an economist giving him her expert advice. What he did say was that female voters have been coming up to Ann and telling her about their experiences of hardship in these harsh economic times. So all that Ann is doing is telling her husband what American women she has met on the campaign trail have said to her. I think Rosen missed this basic point, and I think that everybody who is defending her missed it too.

Ann Romney does not have to be a career woman in order to relay women voters' words to her husband. She does not have to be poor in order to relay women voters words about their economic hardship to their husband. Even if, in some parallel universe, it turned out that Ann Romney was advising her husband as the expert on all things woman-related, Hilary Rosen's criticism would have been a non-starter because the message that Ann transmitted to her husband was right: women nationwide are concerned about the economy. The only thing worth criticizing in Mitt Romney's description of his conversation with his wife is the implication that he cannot speak to women voters directly and has to go through his wife to hear what they're saying. That is what Hilary Rosen should have focused on.

I think Michael Steele was right. I also think some folks on the left are going overboard on this issue. Considering that she seems to have misunderstood what Mitt Romney said about his wife, Rosen made a mistake in targeting Ann for her criticism. She should have said a simple apology and shifted to criticizing Mitt Romney's statements about his values and policies. Trying to salvage her original statement is a  bad idea.

It's this kind of thing that makes me think that many commentators on social and political issues are "sore losers." I wish they had the capacity to say simple apologies when they stumbled or misspoke: If only they didn't try to salvage the arguments they were trying to make. That's the one thing I admire in a public figure- the capacity to admit to being wrong and to apologize properly- but it seems to be such a rare trait.

As for some of the folks on the right, they've gone overboard too. Contrary to their claims, Rosen is not an Obama adviser or a DNC adviser. And as offensive as Rosen's words were, there is no reason to demonize her. She did apologize (even though it was a qualified apology) and she did indicate that stay-at-home moms worked just as hard as career women.

I really am tired of all the rhetoric. The politicos need to return to talking about policy.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

On societal disapproval of young mothers

The blog post by toradora entitled "I'm Young & Pregnant, But I'm Certainly Not Stupid" is quite the read. In it, toradora describes people's reactions to the fact that she is a young mother.

Toradora highlights people's venomous comments and their condescending attitudes towards her. To me it's interesting to read her description of her experience because it confirms something that I have observed time and again: people are opinionated to the point of being offensive when it comes to parenting, even when they have no idea who they are talking to or what they are talking about. In the twinkling of an eye, absolute strangers can turn into "moral police," and proceed to lecture and insult hapless parents on subjects as diverse as breastfeeding, adoption and childbearing age.

Toradora's "sin," as perceived by the strangers in her story, is that she gave birth to her first child when she was 19 years of age. Now, in her early 20s, she is pregnant with a second child. She is quick to clarify that she does not fit the stereotype of a teen mom who "fell victim" to an unwanted pregnancy. Rather, she was engaged when she first got pregnant, and she and her fiance were thrilled about the pregnancy. Now, she and he are married, have a healthy child, are financially stable, and are looking forward to the birth of their second child. But they still are still subject to the disapproval of strangers and acquaintances who are convinced they know better.

Concisely, toradora sets the issue in context:

My grandmother was 19 when she was engaged, 20 at marriage and 21 when she had her first child. My mother was similar, as were most of my aunts and uncles and other extended family. When did it stop being acceptable for a woman to have children before a career if she wanted to? Or before 25 years old? When did it become unusual to marry young? I have qualifications. Several in fact. I'm married. I did all the things that should have made it "acceptable" for me to have a child. But people still see my age.

And that is the issue I must highlight today: How is it that, within one or two generations, our perspectives of life have changed so drastically? When did we become too narrowminded to recognize that it can, in fact, be normal for a young adult, 19 years old, to choose to get married and have kids, and to be matter-of-fact about it? I recognize that the statistics don't favor early marriages. I also recognize that many in their late teens make unwise decisions concerning marriage and raising families that quickly become untenable. But let's set aside the generalities and talk about individuals. Just because early marriage is unsuitable for many, it does not follow that it is unsuitable for all. Rather than stereotyping, why not set aside our prejudices and take people on their own terms?

Early marriage is a legitimate life choice when it is not the result of coercion or imposition by another, and when it is allowed by the law. This is especially the case in some religiously conservative communities, which recognize that it is unrealistic to expect the majority to abstain from sex until they are 29 or 30 years old. Mainstream society tends to prolong childhood into the mid-thirties and onward, indicating that it is not ideal to settle down and have kids until then. And this may very well be true for many, but it is not true for all. Some people are better off marriying at 32, some are better off not marrying at all, some are better off marrying at 19, etc. Assuming that one or another should apply to all people just does not comport with reality.

One of the unfortunate things about the prejudices that toradora highlights is that, when they manifest at the institutional level, they can lock people like her out of healthcare opportunities that, ideally, they should have access to:

So many times I had to fight to not be signed up for "young mother" programs instead of the mainstream programs. I don't have anything against these programs for what they are, but they were lacking in information, restricted, heavy on counseling and basic life skills, like hygiene classes. They were classes for the many young mothers in my community that simply "don't know." For instance the young mothers birthing classes went for two one-hour sessions and only covered a third of the topics that the mainstream ones did (which went for six two-hour sessions) -- and no, you could not take both. Because I refused the dumbed down class, I was refused all classes.
If anything, this is an indicator that one must be more thoughtful about how he or she approaches others' decisions on parenthood. Being well-intentioned is not enough, after all, we have all heard it said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Rather, one must also take pause and recognize that others are not mere statistics or pawns in some larger ideology; they are individuals with their own stories to tell.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Touré and Piers in the "boxing ring"

I feel saddened by the turn taken by the discourse on the story of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teen who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, the armed man in his late twenties who is described as a “neighborhood watch captain.” Initially, the general consensus was that Trayvon’s parents deserved the public’s sympathy and justice (i.e. an investigation into their son’s killing and a subsequent trial). Now, all of that has been somewhat muddied by the polarized war in the media.

A number of journalists have attempted to cover the story objectively and exhaustively as it develops, but others have taken the polarizing route instead. I can’t say I’m surprised. When something touches this close home (as it does for many Americans), it is pointless to ask people to leave their emotions out of it. At the heart of many people’s responses to the story are their fears that they or their loved ones could die in a similar manner to Trayvon (which is understandably terrifying) and then subsequently have the case swept under the carpet because of the killer’s claims that he or she was acting under the “Stand your ground law.” How can you blame people for feeling angry and passionate under the circumstances?

The emotions surrounding the story remind me a bit of the emotions surrounding the 9/11 story when the tragic events happened in 2001. As a foreigner living in the United States, I was very much aware of the moment when all claims to objectivity flew out the window at the major media houses. People were angry, frightened and vulnerable, including the very human journalists and politicians. The biased coverage of the story and the subsequent decision to go to war in Iraq (which horrified and disappointed me) could be understood within this context.

I am among many of those anxiously waiting to see how the Trayvon Martin story plays out. I sincerely hope that the case makes it to a court of law, because the court of public opinion is no place for this issue to be tried. Trayvon Martin and his family deserve that much. And, truth be told, so does George Zimmerman: Otherwise, given the passions surrounding this story, I cannot see any set of circumstances under which he and his family will be able to live without fear of reprisals. In my opinion, the real story here is the progress of the investigation: not the details that the media uncovers about Trayvon’s and George’s personal lives, and certainly not the personal crosses borne by the journalists covering the story.

On the 30th of March, I watched a bizarre exchange on TV between Piers Morgan and Touré that brought all these thoughts to mind. Touré had criticized Piers Morgan’s interview of Robert Zimmerman Jr., the older brother of George Zimmerman, as being too soft. After an unflattering exchange between the two on Twitter, Piers finally responded by asking Touré to come on his show and voice his criticism face-to-face. The prospect of a verbal duel between the two made for good television ratings. But I do think it was a stupid idea on Piers’ part to challenge Touré on that forum. He should simply have left Touré’s criticism where it stood, as the expression of an opinion on Twitter. The minute he decided to invite Touré to his show, their difference in opinion stopped being about responsible journalism and started to be about their egos.

The televised exchange between Touré and Piers was painful to watch. Touré essentially accused Piers of doing a shoddy job as a journalist. In his opinion, Piers had hosted a guest on his show whose credibility was in question, and whose version of events was not supported by the external evidence. He pointed out to Piers that he should have questioned Robert Zimmerman Jr. more aggressively when it was clear that he was not being truthful. Piers protested that he had challenged Robert on some of his claims and emphasized that, as a journalist, it was incumbent upon him to be objective and to allow both sides of the story to be presented to his audience. His providing of that platform to his guests did not mean that he believed every single word his guests spoke.

I could see where the two men were coming from. On the one hand, it was obvious that there had been something wrong with Robert Zimmerman Jr.’s version of events. I had watched the interview and been put off by him. He had come across to me as arrogant and as a liar. He definitely had not done his brother any favors by doing that interview. In fact, on the day after the interview, George Zimmerman’s lawyer had been careful to distance George from it, pointing out that George and Robert Jr. had not spoken in more than a year.

Clearly, Touré’s instincts had been on point. I suspect that my personal opinion on the Trayvon Martin case is pretty close to Touré’s, but I absolutely disliked what I perceived as his attack of Piers Morgan. First of all, Touré seemed to be missing the main point about Piers Morgan Tonight: As I see it, the show is directed at the same audience as Larry King Live. It’s not meant to be an investigative journalism show. It’s a show where people from all walks of life come in, sit and chat. Piers asks questions that allow them to reveal their personalities and, to some extent, he follows their lead. I watch his show when he has political guests for precisely this reason: I want to see the human being behind the public image. Piers’ show would not work if he adopted a “take no hostages” attitude with his guests. In fact, the one time I remember him being hostile to one of his guests, Christine O’Donnell, I was not impressed. So Touré’s criticism of Piers’ role in the interview, while based on fact, was somewhat misplaced.

Another big problem I had with Touré was the tone he adopted in his “duel” with Piers. He sounded arrogant and condescending. Quite frankly, he also sounded childish. He implied that, because Piers was a Briton, he had absolutely no insight into race relations in America, and should have left journalism on the subject to those who were directly involved. He also implied that it was irresponsible to interview Robert Zimmerman Jr. in the first place, presumably because he was presenting a narrative that didn’t agree with what the media had established to be the true narrative. I believe he actually indicated that Robert Jr. should have been treated as a hostile witness.

To me, Touré seemed to have lost sight of what journalism was actually about. He appeared to be of the opinion that the media was a court of sorts and that he and others were acting as the prosecutors of George Zimmerman. I did not like that at all. Inasmuch as I think George Zimmerman’s story is implausible and that he should be charged and taken to court, I do not want the media to be his prosecutor or his defender, nor do I want the media to be his judge. I just want media personalities to shine a light on the facts of the story and to keep me updated on the direction that the investigation is taking.

Like many Americans who watched Piers Morgan Tonight on the night when he interviewed Robert Zimmerman Jr., I was actually interested in hearing Robert’s perspective on his brother George. I did not believe what he had to say, and he proved not to be a sympathetic guest. Furthermore, I think it was stupid of him to do that interview, but at least we got to hear the words from his own mouth. One of the problems with Touré’s apparent perspective on irresponsible journalism is that it presumes that Piers Morgan’s audience does not have the capacity to read between the lines and make judgments of character for themselves. The idea that it is the journalist’s job to frame every interviewee’s words with an interpretation and to spoon-feed this to the audience is problematic. Where I come from, that is not called journalism; it is called manipulation. Granted, most journalism entails a certain amount of manipulation, and that is fine. But it is only fine in small doses. When I watch these interviews, I want to hear the interviewees’ stories for myself. I don’t want to be hit over the head with some opinionated interviewer’s take on things.

In his defense, Touré was backed into a corner. He was obviously not at ease, having to spar with Piers on the latter’s own TV show before he was ready. Apparently, Piers had goaded him into accepting the invitation. So I am not surprised that he was very much on the defensive, and I suspect that he was simply responding instinctively. He was not speaking as a man who had carefully weighed his words and thought about their implications. The snarky, arrogant, and, frankly, bigoted picture we got of Touré was not flattering, but it wasn’t the picture I was used to seeing of him either. Touré’s rants (on the Dylan Ratigan Show) and his articles are usually intelligent and well-thought out. A good case in point is this one about Obama. On that score, I am giving him some leeway. But I hope that, in the future, he avoids putting himself into situations where he collapses his journalistic responsibilities into his personal opinion. I also hope that Piers has learned that televised confrontations are a stupid idea and do nothing to raise the quality of his show. In the future, he should take online criticism magnanimously. On the televised forum, the fight between the two could never have been an exchange between equals.

Please note that I am not claiming that Piers is the epitome of excellent journalism. Many of us are aware of his alleged role in the British media scandal, and Piers Morgan Tonight is, after all, an entertainment show. But in this particular case, I think Touré’s televised words were more cringe-worthy than Piers’.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.